The Mayor of Philadelphia has agreed to endorse legislation that decriminalizes the possession and public consumption of marijuana, making it one of the largest American cities to turn back punitive drug laws.
The bill, which Mayor Michael Nutter said he will endorse, was proposed by the city council, and – with the latest amendments – would levy fines of $25 on people caught possessing small amounts of the drug, and $100 for smoking it in public. In neither case would an offender face a criminal charge or arrest.
“This is about how we deal with penalties in that regard. And there will be penalties. There’s a consequence to people violating the law,” Nutter told reporters on Monday. The bill will be voted on next week, then sent to the mayor for his signature.
The bill’s sponsor, City Council member Jim Kenney (d), wanted to take marijuana possession out of the criminal realm and make it a non-civil offense.
“There’s no more handcuffs, no more bookings, no more criminal record. Police will not have to leave their posts and go to the station house to deal with this,” said Kenney to Policy.Mic. Fines can also be waived by agreeing to perform public service.
Kenney pressed for legislative change recognizing that an arrest for marijuana results in a criminal record, which makes getting hired for a job more difficult or impossible. It cuts a person’s chance of receiving college aid and eliminates one’s chance of serving in the military.
Since 2010, the city has fined people $200 for marijuana possession and ordered three hours of drug abuse classes to go along with an arrest record.
Kenney says this plan will keep 4,000 people from being arrested each year, and will save the Philadelphia Police Department about $4 million a year.
Over 55,000 people are arrested in the state every year for drug possession, and while the population is 83 percent white and 12 percent black, drug arrests seem to disproportionally target African Americans – blacks made up 40 percent of all drug arrests and whites over 58 percent in 2011. A study by the American Civil Liberties Union also found blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
At the State level, the Pennsylvania Senate committee approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana use in June. A vote on the bill by the Senate and House is pending.
Twenty-three other US states have also passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, the most recent being New York.
The use of medical marijuana is still illegal under federal law, and even in states where medical marijuana laws exist, patients and providers are vulnerable to arrest from federal law enforcement, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization promoting drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.